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Immigrants stem sliding economy in Ohio city

The Associated Press
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 04:18 AM
DAYTON, Ohio -

On the same afternoon thousands of Hispanics in Alabama took the day off to protest the state's strict new immigration law, Mexican-born Francisco Mejia was ringing up diners' bills and handing carnitas to drive-thru customers in Dayton.

His family's Taqueria Mixteca is thriving on a street pockmarked with rundown buildings and vacant storefronts. It is often packed with a diverse lunchtime clientele of Hispanic laborers, white men in suits and other customers, white and black. "Business is very good," Mejia said, smiling broadly between orders.

It's the kind of success story that leaders in Dayton think offers hope for an entire city. It has adopted a plan not only to encourage immigrants to come and feel welcome here, but also to use them to help pull out of an economic tailspin.

Dayton officials, who adopted the "Welcome Dayton" plan unanimously Oct. 5, say they aren't condoning illegal immigration; those who come here illicitly will continue to be subject to U.S. laws.

While states including Alabama, Georgia and Arizona have passed laws cracking down on illegal immigrants, Dayton officials say they will leave that to federal authorities and focus instead on how to attract and assimilate those who come legally.

Other cities, including nearby Columbus and Indianapolis, have programs to help immigrants get government and community help, but Dayton's effort has a broader, and more urgent, feel.

Mayor Gary Leitzell told the city commission before the vote that immigrants bring "new ideas, new perspectives and new talent to our workforce. … To reverse the decades-long trend of economic decline in this city, we need to think globally."

Hard-hit for years by the struggles of U.S. manufacturing, particularly in the auto industry, the recession pounded Dayton. Thousands of jobs were lost with the crippling 2009 departure to Georgia of NCR (formerly National Cash Register), after 125 years in Dayton, and by the 2008 shutdown of a General Motors plant in suburban Moraine.

Dayton's unemployment is nearly 11 percent, 2 percent higher than the national average, while population has fallen below 142,000, down 15 percent from 2000. Meanwhile, the city's official foreign-born population rose 57 percent, to 5,102, in the past decade, according to census figures.

City leaders aiming to turn Dayton around examined the immigrant population: Indian doctors, foreign-born professors and graduate students at the region's universities, and owners of new small businesses such as a Turkish family's New York Pizzeria on the city's east side and Hispanic-run car dealerships, repair shops and small markets. They say immigrants revitalized rundown housing, repairing and moving into what had been vacant homes.

"This area has been in a terrible recession, but it would be even worse without them," said Theo Majka, a University of Dayton sociology professor who, with his sociologist wife Linda Majka, has advocated for Dayton's immigrants. "Here we have this underutilized resource."

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